Pan­thers’ Donte Jack­son is key for the team’s se­condary

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOURDAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Carolina Pan­thers cor­ner­back Donte Jack­son has the word “Shrews­bury” tatooed across the length of his right fore­arm. It’s a per­ma­nent re­minder of where he comes from.

And what he’s made of. Shrews­bury is a small neigh­bor­hood in North­east New Orleans. The Mis­sis­sippi River laps at its bound­aries on windier days.

That’s where Jack­son grew up. And he grew up run­ning.

“I al­ways was the small­est dude in the neigh­bor­hood, I was al­ways smaller than all of my friends,” he said. “I was al­ways the fastest, though.”

Yashica, Jack­son’s mother, raised him and his three sib­lings alone. Jack­son’s fa­ther went to prison when he was 6. They have a good re­la­tion­ship now, but Jack­son is clos­est to his mother. He said she hus­tled harder than any­one he’s ever known, stretch­ing to make ends meet and sup­port them.

Squeezed un­der­neath High­way 3046 in Shrews­bury, there is a lit­tle park called the Frank Le­mon Play­ground. It has a youth foot­ball team, which Jack­son joined at age 7.

“You needed 12 (on a team) to play. And we had ex­actly 12 play­ers,” Jack­son laughed. “So we had 11 guys who played both sides, and then the 12th guy who was on the team just so we could have enough play­ers.”

Yashica never missed a game. And she al­ways brought a crowd of aunts and cousins.

“(The Jack­sons) travel, and we love sports,” Jack­son said. “Sports is the one thing that kept us to­gether even through the worst of times. Sports has al­ways had ev­ery­thing come back to­gether, and that’s where my fam­ily has found a level ground.”

It was like that for his friends on the Le­mon Play­ground team, too.

Shrews­bury was an easy place to find trou­ble, Jack­son said.

“It was hard, you know. My neigh­bor­hood wasn’t the best neigh­bor­hood. Drugs, vi­o­lence all around,” he said. “It was

nor­mal. That’s what we thought life was, what we thought ev­ery­body did.” But sports took the boys out of what they were sur­rounded by ev­ery day, Jack­son said. And they could all count on each other. “Those 10 guys that I played with, those were the 10 guys that I hung with ev­ery day in the neigh­bor­hood,” he said. “That was our foot­ball team, our bas­ket­ball team, ev­ery­thing. Same group of guys who I grew up with from age 7 to 13.” All of his Le­mon Play­ground team­mates were small-framed, like him. Scrappy, like him. Fast. But Jack­son was al­ways a lit­tle faster. At Riverdale High school, the city and state be­gan to find out just how much of a gift his speed was. As a foot­ball player, he played both of­fense and de­fense — just like on the Le­mon Play­ground team. He fin­ished his se­nior year as the No. 3-ranked prep player in Louisiana, la­beled as an “ath­lete.” He also won back-to-back state ti­tles in the 100 and 200-me­ter dash in 2015 and 2016. It was more than enough to con­vince coaches at LSU to of­fer him a schol­ar­ship. The school is only an hour and a half from his fam­ily, and a mecca for NFL-cal­iber de­fen­sive backs. So nat­u­rally, he ac­cepted.

TRAN­SCEN­DENT SPEED

Jack­son ar­rived at LSU for sum­mer camp in 2015, and was put through his first con­di­tion­ing test in the swampy Ba­ton Rouge air. It was mostly sprints, no pads. Af­ter, the strength coaches found it hard to de­scribe what Jack­son had just showed them. “He just floats,” said Tommy Mof­fit, LSU’s di­rec­tor of strength and con­di­tion­ing. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him with­out pads, just run­ning. ... His ac­cel­er­a­tion, his stride is just grace­ful. “The first time I saw him run, I was like, ‘This guy is le­git.’ ... When he sprints, it is some­thing to see.” But, as coaches soon found out, Jack­son was much more than the un­der­sized, speedy kid out of Shrews­bury. “There are peo­ple who are quick, and there are peo­ple who are pow­er­ful,” Mof­fitt said. “Donte is both. He’s got great quick­ness, but he also pos­sesses a tremen­dous amount of power, which al­lows him to be strong at the point of at­tack, and stick his foot in the ground and run with the guys.” Jack­son was also a twosport ath­lete at LSU, as a start­ing de­fen­sive back and the lead­off run­ner in the SEC-cham­pion track team’s 4x100 re­lay. Mar­ry­ing the two sports made him bet­ter. “(Track is) about go­ing against the guy next to you. ... And I think that has a lot to do with (who he is now),” Mof­fitt said. “Be­cause in a team sport you can be suc­cess­ful based on the ac­tions of some­one else, but in an event like the 100 me­ters, you’re only suc­cess­ful be­cause of your re­ac­tion time to the gun and how fast you are.” That’s kind of like go­ing against an NFL re­ceiver one-on-one. The snap is the gun; and then it’s just Jack­son try­ing to beat his man. Track also helped build a men­tal­ity that’s cru­cial in cor­ner­backs: A short mem­ory. Jack­son def­i­nitely has that qual­ity, Pan­thers coaches say of­ten. He is able to treat each play as the play. And then it’s over. Then, the next play is the play. Like run­ning sprints. The Pan­thers saw that on tape as they scouted Jack­son, be­fore se­lect­ing him in the sec­ond round, No. 55 over­all, this spring. When they got to his game against Auburn in 2017, they were blown away. Jack­son made six con­sec­u­tive big plays, in­clud­ing three pass breakups. He con­tin­ued his in­tro­duc­tion to the NFL with sim­i­lar tenac­ity. In train­ing camp with the Pan­thers, Jack­son al­most im­me­di­ately won the start­ing No. 2 cor­ner job. He made plays on the ball and few mis­takes, and his con­fi­dence was pal­pa­ble. Of­ten as he bat­tled re­ceivers, he was out­sized. But it didn’t mat­ter. That’s just Shrews­bury. “I’m al­ways go­ing to win. Al­ways com­pet­ing,” he said. “Al­ways want to get af­ter it, re­gard­less of how big the op­po­nent is. “I think that comes from my back­ground, grow­ing up. And how hard you have to be just to walk through my neigh­bor­hood.”

A NEW SU­PER­HERO

There is a new generation of kids run­ning around Le­mon Play­ground th­ese days, but Jack­son said they all know his name. “It’s lit­tle kids who didn’t even know me when I used to be back there a lot, I’m a su­per­hero to them now,” he said. Jack­son the only one of his orig­i­nal youth foot­ball friend group who made it big. “I’m the only one still stand­ing, I think,” he said. “So me get­ting out there ev­ery week is me play­ing for my neigh­bor­hood, play­ing for the peo­ple back home who are still out there fight­ing ad­ver­sity. They ex­pect me to go out there and play hard.” New Orleans is a Saints city, but in Shrews­bury on Sun­days, Jack­son said ev­ery­one watches him play for the NFC South ri­val Pan­thers. “Le­mon Play­ground, that’s where it all started. From scor­ing touch­downs on that field, to get­ting drafted,” he said. “That’s why ev­ery­body there is with me. Ev­ery­body knows what you have to be made of to come through there. So that’s what I’m play­ing with right now.” Jack­son leads the Pan­thers in in­ter­cep­tions, with three through his first four games. He has matched his promis­ing abil­ity with a con­fi­dence that has drawn com­par­isons to no­to­ri­ously chatty for­mer Pan­thers cor­ner­back Josh Nor­man. Jack­son is flat­tered by that. But he also wants to be some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing more spe­cial to the peo­ple of Shrews­bury. “Ac­tion Jack­son.” He didn’t cre­ate the nick­name for him­self. “Lit­tle kids love it, more than the adults do,” he said. It sounds like a su­per­hero’s name. “When I was young, pro­fes­sional ath­letes were su­per­heroes to me. ... I just think that the whole ‘Ac­tion Jack­son’ moniker is more for them,” he said. “I just like to go out there, have fun, and show them that you can make it from any­where. Just keep go­ing.” Jack­son plays for those kids, and for the neigh­bor­hood, for his broth­ers, sis­ter, his aunts and his cousins. His mom. Like the ink on his arm, they stick with him wher­ever he goes. How­ever fast he runs.

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Pan­thers rookie cor­ner­back Donte Jack­son leads the team in in­ter­cep­tions with three through four games this sea­son, demon­strat­ing the speed and tenac­ity he de­vel­oped in the Shrews­bury neigh­bor­hood of New Orleans.

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Never the big­gest guy, Pan­thers cor­ner­back Donte Jack­son (26) com­petes both phys­i­cally and with his un­com­mon speed.

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